Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive

Telepresence and Bio Art: Networking Humans, Rabbits, and Robots

by Eduardo Kac
University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, MI, 2005
320 pp., illus. 100 b/w, col. Trade, $65.00; paper, $27.95
ISBN: 0-472-09810-1; ISBN: 0-472-06810-5.

Reviewed by Dene Grigar
Texas Woman’s University


Telepresence and Bio Art is an important book in the field of media art, though not because it chronicles the intellectual journey of artist and theorist Eduardo Kac. A compilation of Kac’s essays written over the course of 12 years (1991-2002), the book breaks no new ground or provides any new insights into his work. Rather, it is important because it chronicles the history and development of electronic art from the unique perspective of one of its most prominent artists and theorists. The strength of the book is this insider’s take of the art discussed, as well as its vast international scope and the naughty delight it offers with its many claims and prognostications about electronic art that have and have not come true.

The book is divided into three parts: The first consists of four essays focusing on the art and theory of early electronic art. The first essay, "The Aesthetics of Telecommunications" (1992), argues that media art is developing in a similar manner as telecommunication art did in that the new media, first, "impacts" the old, and, then, is utilized in highly "experimental" ways (8). Much evidence is produced to support this view, from Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s Telephone Pictures (1924) to Roy Ascott’s Teminal Art (1980). Those familiar with Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s notion of "remediation" that appeared eight years after the publication of this essay may take pleasure in reading this first hint of that theory. The three essays that follow are also compelling––the first two, dealing with internet art and interactive art, respectively, because of the rich history related, and the last one because of its theoretical position: an explanation of "the dialogic principle in the visual arts" (104). Readers may notice in this essay a tonal shift that separates it from the previous three but connects it more with the next 12; it is understandable in light of the fact that each of 16 essays has been previously published and, so, are aimed at different audiences.

To be honest, the book takes flight in Part II, "Telepresence Art and Robotics." Perhaps it is because it is the point in the text where the focus shifts from a third person report on an emergent art form to a first person account of one’s emerging practice of that art. More is at stake, and one feels it: Kac’s work with telepresence art from the period of 1991 to 2000. The passion with which the author writes about his work is what takes hold of the reader––that, and watching the telerobotic project, Ornitorrinco, evolve from an experiment with telecommunications and wireless telerobotics in Chapter 5; to that of an experiment with "real-time video and sound" (150)––Ornitorrinco on the Moon––in Chapter 6; to a "networked telepresence installation" (157), Ornitorrinco in Eden, in Chapter 7; to finally the geographically dispersed events, Ornitorrinco in the Sahara and Ornitorrinco . . . and Back in Chapter 10. Odd among these essays is "Live from Mars," a response to the historical Mars landing published in Leonardo Electronic Almanac in 1997. Alone, it is a terrific analysis of the import of that event; placed within these accounts of one’s personal art vision, it stands out as disjunctive.

The final section, "Bio Art," takes us to the place where many people know Kac’s work: transgenic art and the GFP Bunny. Reading Parts 2 and 3, one can imagine how Kac got from Point A, "Telepresence," to Point B, "Bio Art." Though he never comes right out and tells us so (it is stated only in the title), we can intimate from these essays that his interest in telepresence seemed to lead him to think about the relationship between the body and technology within a particular space and time––which in turn seemed to take him to simulations of the body dispersed through space in immediate time (real-time)––which in turn led him to question the way humans intervene in the body with technology––which in turn led him to wonder about the way humans intervene with the animal body with the specific technologies of genetics––which in turn led him to genetically engineer a green rabbit. Of the final two essays, "The Eighth Day," fits into the progression of ideas in that it expands Kac’s notion of transgenic art from the creation of one new life form to creating a universe of them. "Move 386," the final essay of the book, is a brief description of the transgenic art project by the same name. It is not readily apparent how this work expands upon or more deeply investigates what he has already done in the area.

What would be helpful to readers is to hear what Kac has to say about his work in retrospect, to have at one’s fingertips some commentary either at the beginning of each "chapter" or at the end in some "final essay" that synthesizes the work and contextualizes it in current art and theory––as well as in Kac’s own (current) views about the state of electronic art. One is reminded of Edward Shanken’s in-depth introduction to Roy Ascott’s writings in The Telematic Embrace or the clever use of interviews in Marille Hahn’s edited volume of Jill Scott’s work, Coded Characters: Media Art by Jill Scott. Approaches like these would add to an understanding of the development of electronic art as well as the importance of Kac’s work through time. For students reading the book, a glossary of Kac’s terms would be a welcome addition, particularly since these early definitions vary sometimes from current ones. Also, a list of Kac’s art recounted chronologically, as well as that produced by others, would also be useful.




Updated 1st May 2006

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@leonardo.info

copyright © 2006 ISAST